Happy Anniversary, Mr. President by David Boaz

I have some thoughts on Obama after one year at npr.org:
Happy anniversary, Mr. President. Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts is a rude ending to a year marked by falling poll ratings and growing opposition to his signature policy initiatives.... President Obama has several models to choose from: He could reverse his tax-spend-and-regulate policies and hope for the same economic and political results that Reagan achieved. He could, like Bill Clinton, recognize the political obstacles to his sweeping ambitions and learn to work with Republicans on modest reforms. He may well end up like Lyndon Johnson, with an ambitious domestic agenda eventually bogged down by endless war. But I don't think his wished-for FDR model — a transformative agenda that is both popular and long-lasting — is in the cards.
Read it all. And be sure to hit "Recommend" at the top and add a Comment.

Posted on January 20, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Brown Revolution by David Boaz

Around the world over the past decade, longstanding and stultifying power elites have been toppled by what came to be known as the "color revolutions" -- notably the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and hopefully the Green Revolution in Iran. Now the political elites in Boston and Washington have been rocked by the Brown Revolution. Pundits have been describing a possible Brown victory in terms like "canary in the mine," "depth charge," "shock waves," "nuclear explosion," "full freak-out," and "angels will weep and the Charles River will run red with blood." Political scientist Raymond La Raja said a Democratic loss would be the first shot in what could be a revolutionary war -- "like the Battle of Lexington and Concord." That's what worries the Democratic ruling establishment. This "revolutionary" video got more than 400,000 views in the week before the election. Scott Brown takes over a seat in the United States Senate that has been held by one family (including its seat-fillers) for just over 57 years, since John F. Kennedy was elected to it in 1952, before Brown was born. Massachusetts hadn't elected a Republican senator since 1972. In the closest U.S. Senate race of the past decade, Democrat John Kerry won by 35 points.  All 10 of its House members are Democrats, and about 90 percent of both legislative chambers. That's a well-entrenched political establishment. And as so often happens with long-ruling parties, it has seen its share of corruption: Three consecutive House speakers have resigned under clouds. It's no surprise that Massachusetts Democrats have finally encountered the kind of voter reaction that national Democrats did in 1994, and national Republicans in 2006 and 2008. Given President Obama's falling job approval, growing opposition to the Obama health care plan, the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey, the fury in Nebraska over Ben Nelson's wheeling and dealing, the growing recognition that libertarians are a major part of the decentralized "Tea Party" movement, and rising poll support for "smaller government," the Brown victory is a flashing red light with a siren warning Democrats not to proceed with a health care bill that voters don't like and a big-government agenda that Americans weren't voting for in 2008. Brown is no libertarian. But he campaigned against the Obama-Reid-Pelosi health care plan and against tax increases, so he will be part of the opposition to the current governing agenda. And he stood up to challenge the Democratic machine when no one else did. And certainly events in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere are sufficient reminder that the failings of individuals don't invalidate the popular movement. How does an entrenched political party respond to a successful rebellion? Well, one way is for both the local and national officials to refuse to certify the results of the election and try to ram unpopular programs with the votes of rejected legislators. Would Democrats try to do that with more elections looming in just 10 months? Harry Reid and Barney Frank say absolutely not. Expect a lot of scrambling this week.

Posted on January 19, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Racial Politics and the Supreme Court by David Boaz

Lauren Collins has a long and interesting profile of Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the January 11 New Yorker. It's full of heartwarming stories about her hard-working parents, her dedication to education, her warmth to friends and law clerks, and so on. Though it does include this vignette that seems to corroborate controversial claims that she was "a bully on the bench":
In early December, during oral arguments for United Student Aid Funds Inc. v. Espinosa, Sotomayor cut off a lawyer as he attempted to answer a question posed by Justice Ginsburg. “Counsel, may I interrupt for just one moment, because I—there is something needling at me that I do need an answer to,” Sotomayor said. According to Law.com, which reported on the incident in a story headlined “Sotomayor Collides with Ginsburg During Questioning,” Justice Stephen Breyer turned to Sotomayor as though to intervene. Before he could, Ginsburg shot back, “And I’d like him to answer the question that I asked him first.”
But what really struck me in the article, and what appears to be new reporting, was this discussion of the explicitly racial politics that led up to her nomination. Maybe I'm just naive, and certainly I wasn't under the impression that race, religion, gender, and other such factors are absent in the selection of our nine most trusted judges. But this really seems like the way you put together a balanced ticket in a political campaign, not the way you choose a wise justice:

Posted on January 18, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarian Surge by David Boaz

David Paul Kuhn at RealClearPolitics sees a surge of libertarianism in the current political scene:
The philosophical casualty of the Great Recession was supposed to be libertarianism. But signs to the contrary are thriving. Americans are increasingly opposed to activist government programs. The most significant social movement of 2009, the Tea Party protests, grew out of that opposition. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand is as popular today as ever. Rand's brilliant and radical laissez faire novel "Atlas Shrugged," sold roughly 300,000 copies last year, according to BookScan, twice its sales in 2008 and roughly triple annual sales in recent decades. We are witnessing a conservative libertarian comeback. It's an oppositional advance, a response to all manners of active-state liberalism since the financial crisis. It's a pervasive feeling of invasiveness. The factional bastions of traditional libertarianism, like Washington think tank Cato, now have an intangible and awkward alliance with a broad swath of the American electorate.... This limited libertarian resurgence has haunted Obama's domestic agenda. The fundamental mistake of the Obama administration in 2009 was underestimating the American public's ongoing tension with active-state liberalism, a fact visible from the outset and one only belatedly confronted by Obama.... Today's limited libertarian revival is a response to a sense of overreaching elite technocrats as well as fear of an intrusive bureaucracy. Responsiveness is the core impulse. Rand's radical libertarianism, where man is an ends in himself and the welfare state is fundamentally immoral, was a response to the radically invasive Soviet state that weaned her as a girl. On a drastically less extreme scale, one side of this American debate could not exist without the other. The Obama administration brought with it ambitions of a resurgence of FDR and LBJ's active-state liberalism. And with it, Obama has revived the enduring American challenge to the state.
I've been struck by the fact that two recent profiles in the New York Times magazine — one on Dick Armey and one on the rise of Marco Rubio in Florida — have identified Tea Party protesters as libertarians, which I think is largely right but not generally noticed by pundits who can only hold two concepts (red and blue, conservative and liberal) in their minds at once. It's not that the Tea Partiers are carrying pro-choice or anti–drug war signs, it's just that their focus and their energy are, as the Armey profile put it, "libertarian, anti-Washington, old-fashioned get-out-of-my-way-and-I’ll-make-it-on-my-own American self-sufficiency." They're up in arms about spending, deficits, bailouts, government handouts, and a government takeover of health care. That's a populist libertarian spirit. Kuhn describes the current mood as "conservative libertarianism," which he contrasts to "traditional libertarianism" that embraces a laissez-faire approach to both economics and personal freedom. He may be right that a lot of the Tea Partiers are not as comprehensively pro-freedom or "anti-government" (really, pro-limited government) as I'd like. But I see some evidence of a social libertarian surge as well, as I wrote back in May. Polls are finding growing support for marijuana legalization and for marriage equality, especially among young people. As young people and independents also become increasingly disillusioned with President Obama's big-government agenda, this may be a real shift in a libertarian direction. And don’t forget, at 90 days into the Obama administration, Americans preferred smaller government to “more active government” by 66 to 25 percent.

Posted on January 8, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

We’re #1 ! by David Boaz

Cato@Liberty is the #1 U.S. political blog available on Kindle. Or at least it's the #1 U.S. blog in the "News, Politics, and Opinion" category, and the #3 Politics blog in the same category. What's the difference? Beats me. So as far as I'm concerned, we're #1. Note that you can also get Cato Unbound on Kindle. And both the blog and Cato Unbound are available for the low low price of just 99 cents a month! Of course, they're free 24 hours a day right here at the Cato websites. And don't forget that all recent Cato books are available in Kindle and also as e-books from the Cato store.

Posted on January 8, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen by David Boaz

Two items in Tuesday's newspapers remind us of the often unseen costs of regulation and also of the often unseen benefits of market processes. In the Wall Street Journal, Prof. Todd Zywicki examines the likely consequences of a law to limit credit card interest rates and the fees they charge to merchants:
Card issuers might also reduce the quantity and quality of credit cards by restricting credit availability and cutting back on product innovation or ancillary card benefits. This is exactly what happened when Australian regulators imposed price controls on interchange fees in 2003: Annual fees increased an average of 22% on standard credit cards and annual fees for rewards cards increased by 47%-77%. Card issuers also reduced the generosity of their reward programs by 23%. Innovation, especially in terms of improved security and identity-theft protection, was stalled. Card issuers also increased their efforts to attract higher-risk customers who generate interest and penalty fees to offset lower interchange revenues from lower-risk transactional users.
Those are the kinds of unseen costs that most of us wouldn't anticipate (that's why economists talk about "unanticipated [or unintended] consequences" of action). Only after the fact were economists able to identify the specific costs of the regulation. It seemed like a good idea -- limit the cost of something that consumers (voters) want. Did anyone predict the consequences? People probably predicted that annual fees would rise to compensate for the lost revenue from interchange fees. But did they anticipate a slowdown in innovation in security and identity-theft protection? Did they anticipate that card issuers would work harder to get higher-risk customers? Such regulation always impedes the optimal working of market processes, and thus inevitably delivers sub-optimal results.  Meanwhile, we often observe conditions in the marketplace that don't seem to make sense to us. So we assume something is wrong, maybe even corrupt. An article in the Washington Post written in a sober yet hysterical style raised the problem of "medical salesmen in the operating room." Then, in a letter to the Post, Dr. Mark Domanski explains why it makes sense to have medical salesmen in the operating room. A Post article on the topic had been full of anecdotes about a salesman who "began his career selling hot dogs" hanging out in operating rooms and doctors who expressed outrage. If only they had thought to ask a surgeon in distant Arlington, Virginia:
I found David S. Hilzenrath's Dec. 27 Business article, "The salesman in the operating room," to be one-sided. Of course, medical sales representatives work along doctors in operating rooms. As a surgeon, I always want a company rep in the operating room. So, if you were having surgery that involved a complicated piece of equipment, wouldn't you like somebody from the manufacturer to be there? I know I would. Here's why: Remember when you tried to assemble that desk you bought from a furniture store? We all know how to use a screwdriver, but when something is off, it's nice to know there is a number to call. What if you needed to put that desk together quickly because you needed it for something important? It would be nice if the company sent someone to make sure all the parts were there and in good order. That's what a good rep does. As the surgeon, I make the diagnosis and decide the treatment. No company representative tells me how to use a knife. But many products in the operating room are complex and change almost every year; they are getting better that fast. When I am using a complex product, such as a plating system for fixing a jaw fracture, having the rep in the room ensures that the system is functional. I know all the parts will be there. I know that the right screw and plate will be handed to me at the right time. Sometimes we call in the rep for an operation, and it turns out that the fracture does not need to be plated. No rep has ever suggested that I plate a fracture that didn't need to be plated.
Members of Congress and activists are constantly reading articles about apparent problems and rushing off to propose legislation. These examples and countless more should remind us to think carefully before we coercively interfere in the decisions that millions, billions, of people make every day.

Posted on January 7, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Is Environmentalism a Religion? by David Boaz

Is environmentalism a religion? At NPR it is -- yet again. I thought the latest story started off oddly -- talking about "the uneasy relationship between religion and science" and saying that lefty novelist Margaret Atwood thinks that "in the future we could see a religion that combines religion and science." But it's not the case that all religions have problems with all science, is it? So I was dubious about the premise of the story. And then -- what new kind of religion does Margaret Atwood envision? Well, you could write it yourself:
KLEFFEL: Armstrong sees the role of religion as a guiding force for ethical behavior. Margaret Atwood brings that notion to life in her newest novel, "The Year of the Flood." It's set in a dystopian near future where genetic engineering has ravaged much of the planet. The survivors have created a new religion. Ms. ATWOOD: This group, which is called God's Gardeners, has taken it possibly to an extreme that not everybody will be able to do. They live on rooftops in slums on which they have vegetable gardens. And they keep bees. And they are strictly vegetarian, unless you get really, really hungry, in which case you have to start at the bottom of the food chain and work up. And they make everything out of recycled castoffs and junk. So they're quite strict. KLEFFEL: Atwood points out that the beginnings of her religion of the future have already appeared in the present. Ms. ATWOOD: Indeed, we now have the Green Bible among us, which I did not know when I was writing this book, which has tasteful linen covers, ecologically correct paper, the green parts in green. Introduction by Archbishop Tutu. And a list at the end of useful things you can do to be a more worthy green person. KLEFFEL: Atwood created a new pantheon of saints, including Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Dian Fossey, the murdered conservationist, as well as hymns, which have been brought to life by Orville Stoeber. (Soundbite of song, "Today We Praise Our St. Dian") Mr. ORVILLE STOEBER (Singer): (Singing) Today we praise our Saint Dian, whose blood for bounteous life was spilled. Although she interposed her faith, one species more was killed.
Novelist Michael Crichton said that environmentalism had all the trappings of a religion: “Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday.” Atwood is filling it out with saints and hymns.

Posted on January 2, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Ayn Rand Is In by David Boaz

Who would have thought? The Washington Post, which took two months to run a review of the two important new books about Ayn Rand that were published in October, now declares Ayn Rand to be "In" for 2010. Well, technically, in the paper's annual New Year's Day Out/In list, it declares "Twihards" (fans of the Twilight series, I take it) to be Out and "Randroids" to be In. But the splashy display in the print paper illustrates "Randroids" with a classic photo of Ayn Rand, the one that graces the cover of Barbara Branden's biography The Passion of Ayn Rand. Rand had a pretty good 2009, so it's impressive that the Post thinks she'll be bigger in 2010.  While the renewed interest in Rand has been noticed everywhere from the Times Higher Education Supplement to the Wall Street Journal to the left-wing Campus Progress, William Kristol apparently missed it entirely. He wrote on December 29 about the revival of conservatism in response to the challenge of the Obama administration.
Of course, as conservatives, we also know many of the very best ideas are old ideas. And I'm struck by how many people are rediscovering Hayek's "The Fatal Conceit," Irving Kristol's "Two Cheers for Capitalism," or Tocqueville's account of soft despotism in "Democracy in America."
There are great ideas to be found in that list of books. But as everyone but Kristol has noticed, the author who's really being rediscovered in this first 18 months or so of financial crisis and government expansion is Ayn Rand. Consider the sales figures for the different books. In 2009 about 2000 copies of The Fatal Conceit were sold. (Kristol should have cited The Road to Serfdom, which sold 21,000, more than double its sales the year before and about six times its sales in 2007, before the financial crisis began.) About 20,000 copies of various editions of Democracy in America. And 300,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged, along with 95,000 copies of The Fountainhead and even 60,000 copies of Anthem. (Two Cheers for Capitalism is out of print, so its rediscoveries can't be tracked by BookScan.) It's clearly Ayn Rand who has gotten the most help from the Bush-Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke-Obama-Geithner-Bernanke policies of the past 18 months. Note: In addition to the new books on Rand from two of the world's greatest publishers, the revitalized Laissez Faire Books has just published, for the first time in book form, the lectures on Ayn Rand's philosophy that Nathaniel Branden gave back in the 1960s. Known then as "The Basic Principles of Objectivism," now published as The Vision of Ayn Rand, these lectures were instrumental in tying Rand's fiction to philosophy, politics, and economics, and in creating one of the first organized libertarian movements. As I said in a jacket blurb:
This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand's subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn't change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may -- and should -- debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn't that a time!

Posted on January 1, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

About David Boaz

Click here to learn more.